March 5, 2021

Workstation: Working at Making the Most of Your Vacation

Well, maybe not.

Assuming that they get a paid vacation — far from a given in the United States — employees may be reluctant to take time off because of towering workloads and fears that their jobs are vulnerable. If they do arrange for time off, there is the stress of getting work done in advance or delegating duties to co-workers.

Once a vacation starts, it can be exciting, refreshing and relaxing. But not always: it can also be profoundly destabilizing, with the lack of a predictable routine causing anxiety. And there is the heightened possibility of losing things, whether luggage, hotel reservations, cabin pressure, directions or respect for a travel companion.

Then, after time off, employees face a flood of pent-up e-mails and demands — unless they were obsessively responding to them during the vacation, thereby wiping out the restorative value it may have had.

These days, because of technology, it’s very hard to disengage completely from the office during a vacation, says Daniel H. Pink, the author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” who answered questions about vacations while he was on a recent vacation.

The border between what is work and what is personal is more porous than ever, and that cuts both ways, Mr. Pink says. So while people may have to answer an e-mail from their boss on a Sunday, he notes, they may also order shoes online or make an orthodontist appointment for their child while at work.

Whereas the transition from working to going on vacation used be like an on-off switch, it’s now more of a dimmer switch, Mr. Pink says, and people need to adjust it in a way that works for them. For example, during his vacation, he tends to check e-mail only a few times a day.

Barbara Adachi, a principal in Deloitte Consulting’s human capital practice, started creating a stricter separation between vacation and work when she was in Patagonia on vacation several years ago. Her BlackBerry didn’t get reception there, she said, “and I had no choice but not to check it — it was very freeing.”

Now she doesn’t check e-mail at all during vacations, and if there is an urgent situation, people can contact her assistant, who knows how to reach her.

In the belief that vacations ultimately make employees more productive, Deloitte Consulting keeps a “watch list” of people who are billing a lot of hours and haven’t taken time off in a while, Ms. Adachi says. The company also keeps track of when people on the same project are planning to take time off, to ensure that “somebody’s got your back when you’re out,” she says.

Cross-training and planning are crucial to ensuring that people take all their vacation time, thereby improving their health and happiness, says John de Graaf, executive director Take Back Your Time, an organization that promotes work/life balance. In European Union countries, where a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation is mandated, companies take this training much more seriously, he says.

Mr. de Graaf’s plea to have the United States require companies to provide time for vacation has fallen on deaf Congressional ears. Such a law would be a tough sell. Is it any coincidence, after all, that the United States is among the most productive nations in the world and that American workers take just about the least amount of vacation?

It’s true that American businesses are highly productive, Mr. de Graaf says, and that can be linked in part to the fact that Americans work more hours.

But companies need to be aware that not taking time off exacts a price in the form of employee burnout, poor physical and mental health and high turnover, he adds.

Also, vacations just plain make people happier, right?

Interestingly, a recent study out of the Netherlands, though confirming that vacations do heighten happiness, found that the greatest benefit occurred before the vacation — in short, anticipation appears to trump reality.

In recognition of this, people may want to consider taking more trips of shorter duration, Jeroen Nawijn, the lead author of the study,  told The New York Times last year.

“If you have a two-week holiday, you can split it up and have two one-week holidays,” he said. “You could try to increase the anticipation effect by talking about it more and maybe discussing it online.”

So perhaps bosses should be understanding if they happen to see their employees sneaking a look at or while sitting at their desks.

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